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What is Synth Detune & Why Use It?

Synth Detune Header

Detune has long been used in analog/software synthesisers to help add warmth and movement to signals. It’s a classic sound design technique which has played a huge part in music production over the last few decades. Most producers/sound designers are well versed in the resulting sound of a detune application but perhaps not so well acquainted with the process that takes place to achieve such a sound. So what is synth detune & how does it work?

Understanding voices

First of all, for detune to be applied we must have at least two voices present on that particular oscillator. Why? Because this legendary sound is formed by altering the frequencies of any additional voices and then mixing them in with the original signal.

A basic sine wave
Standard sine wave

For demonstrative purposes we’ll use a sine wave. Here you can see the single voice of a sine wave (orange) oscillating at a steady frequency.

Two sine waves at differing frequencies.
Two sine waves at differing frequencies

Now look what happens to the signal when we add a second voice (black). The additional voice is oscillating at a slightly higher frequency and therefore drifts away from the original sine wave. This causes the second voice to be at a higher pitch than the first and therefore ever so slightly out-of-tune.

This imperfection can really add warmth and a sense of humanisation when used in moderation. On the contrary, large amounts of detune will sound more metallic and quite aggressive – but you’ll know what sound is right for your track!

Odds and evens

Subtle detune is a popular choice for creating dance plucks, warm pads and bass hits. If you’re more into producing dark techno then there’s a good chance you’d opt for the larger detuned sounds!

7 voices from one oscillator

Above is the graphic representation of detuning similar to the oscillator menu used by Xfer Records’ SERUM. The black band represents the original voice whilst the orange are the detuned voices. The voices towards the outside are more detuned than their inside neighbours. You’ll notice that each voice is set an equal distance apart! This style of detune is known as ‘linear’.

SERUM is an exceptional choice of soft-synth when it comes to detuning. You are granted lots of freedom with the number of voices available, the detune types and of course the ability to blend the original signal to your liking.

If you’re creating bass sounds then it would be wise to keep your number of voices to an odd number. Having a voice central will help to keep your bass more solid and mono compatible.

The most common ‘basic shape’ to apply detune is certainly the saw wave. So many classic sounds are based on these foundations. It’s certainly worth experimenting with different numbers of voices (both odd & even) and to try applying it to various wave shapes.

It’s important to remember that varying synths will have differing detune results due to the individual characteristics of the synth itself – this tutorial is intended only to teach the fundamentals!

4 thoughts on “What is Synth Detune & Why Use It?”

  1. Wow, thanks for this! It makes so much more sense now because of the graphics as well. Do all synths have detune? Keep up the good work! – FP

    1. No problem, Fernando! Glad I could help. Not all synths have detune as some do not have the facility to add additional voices. You can, however, emulate this by adding another oscillator and tweaking its pitch or phase value. ~ David

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